Calgary Music Profile: David Rhymer

Musical-theatre composer David Rhymer is best known around these parts for his collaborations with the notorious One Yellow Rabbit theatre company. However, he has never actually joined the company — he describes his relationship as that of an “uncle” to the Rabbit nuclear family.

That relationship began with the most notorious of all Rabbit productions, Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp. Rhymer wrote the songs for the irreverent musical depicting Holocaust-denying Alberta high school teacher Jim Keegstra and co-wrote the story and script.

Even before Ilsa, Rhymer was no stranger to provocation. Raised for the most part in Montreal, he had a background in political and activist theatre prior to arriving in Calgary in 1987. His gateway to musical theatre came when he was in his late 20s, after he developed an obsession with the European agitprop playwrights and composers Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.

“I became incredibly interested in that form of theatre-telling,” Rhymer says. “It just sort of mainlines ideas; it goes straight in, emotionally. “I couldn’t get it out of my skin.”

Rhymer began writing his own compositions, but, with no musical training, he was forced to rely on collaborators to bring the melodies and motifs in his head to life.

Unsatisfied with that translation process, he resolved to figure out how to play the music himself. It was a daunting task, considering Rhymer was pushing 30 and didn’t have any sort of musical background. In fact, growing up, Rhymer was strictly forbidden from touching his mother’s prized Hammond organ. 

“Sometimes, when she wasn’t around, I would sneak in and play it, but she would always know,” he says. “Had she rammed lessons down my throat, I’d probably have a whole different attitude toward music.”

Despite the “blessing and curse” of being self-taught, Rhymer has parlayed his passion into an illustrious career. He prefers to write what he calls “salon-style musicals,” a blend of theatrical narrative and musical composition similar in form to an art song rather than the traditional musical.

Most recently, Rhymer collaborated with Calgary poet and musician Kris Demeanor on the show Crime Does Not Pay, presented this past September by local company Downstage. He also experienced successes in New York with his show Mata Hari in 8 Bullets, starring former Rabbit Onalea Gilbertson (“She’s fearless,” Rhymer says). After making a splash at the New York Music Theatre Festival in July, the show now has an off-Broadway run in the making.  

Though his career now spans more than three decades, he still has much more music to write. Says Rhymer, “It still feels like I’m at the beginning.” 

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